When it comes to the Xperia S, it appears that Sony has at least listened to some of the criticisms that have been thrown its way in regards to the exterior design of its cellular phones.
Unfortunately, they seem to have disregarded other comments – but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Design and build quality
For once, a Sony phone doesn’t feel cheap. The casing is still plastic, but it feels like it can take some punishment.
On top is the power/wake button and the 3.5mm headphone jack. These two are positioned quite close together and nothing else is placed on top, so this arrangement seems a little peculiar.
On the left side is the microUSB port covered by one of those flimsy-feeling flaps, while the right side holds the micro-HDMI port (also covered by a flap), volume rocker, and camera shutter button.
On the bottom is a lanyard attachment point (how… quaint).
On the rear in the top middle, is the camera with a single LED flash directly below it and the external speaker directly below that. The back cover is removable, though it’s merely to get to the microSIM slot.
There’s no expandable storage to be had, and not even the battery is removable – what a shame. Why Sony didn’t integrate the back cover and use a microSIM tray on the outside instead is puzzling to say the least.
Up front, in the top right corner, is the front-facing camera, with the earpiece a little below it in the middle. In the left corner is a notification LED. This is followed by the large 4.3-inch screen and some hardware buttons.
Remember how the Xperia arc and Xperia arc S didn’t have backlit buttons and how we complained about them? Well, the Xperia S doesn’t have them either. Instead, there are 3 pinprick-sized dots and beneath them, a clear strip with 3 icons.
The dots are the capacitive buttons, and the icons below them light up. The problem is that the contact area for the little dot-buttons is essentially nothing – you have to be (pinpoint) accurate with your presses or else you won’t get any effect. With the lighting below the buttons, you may get confused, thinking that you should press the lit part, when in fact you should be pressing somewhere above them.
Overall, the Xperia S has a solid feel to it, but there are some strange design decisions that are more than just minor annoyances.
Inside are some decent components, though they’re not exactly top-of-the-line.
There’s a Qualcomm MSM8260 chipset with a CPU clocked at 1.5GHz and an Adreno 220 GPU. It packs 1GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. As mentioned before, the internal storage is not expandable.
For wireless connectivity, the Xperia S offers WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, and HSPA (up to 14.4 Mbps down and 5.8Mbps up.
In terms of benchmarking, the Xperia S tops the charts with an AnTuTu score of 6,496.8 (compared to the previous best of 6,394.2 by the Samsung Galaxy Note).
Screen and responsiveness
The Xperia S features a 4.3-inch screen with 1280×720 resolution. For those counting, that gives it 341 pixels per inch (PPI), compared to the 330PPI of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, and the 316PPI of the Galaxy Nexus.
Reading, browsing, and gaming on the Xperia S was a pleasure. Text was beautiful to behold and colours were bright and vibrant, though not as saturated as AMOLED-based displays.
The screen supports up to 10 touch points and was generally well-behaved in terms of responsiveness.
Sound and call quality
The volume of the external speaker was definitely loud enough, though its quality is nothing to call home about. The bundled headphones didn’t impress us much either, though they are at least serviceable.
Call quality was decent with neither party reporting any problems.
The Xperia S features a 12MP rear-facing camera that’s capable of taking still shots at 4000×3000 resolution as well as 1080p video at 30fps.
While it does well when there’s lots of light available, producing sharp images with excellent colour reproduction, it suffers in light constrained situations with most photos becoming noisy and far too often, blurry.
Worth mentioning is that pressing and holding the camera button takes you directly to the camera app. Unfortunately, this also seems to have the by-product of instantly taking a photo, whether you had the subject framed properly or not. More often than not, I ended up taking a blurred scene while getting ready to take the photo I actually wanted.
Video recording quality was similarly good, though with the same caveat of needing ample light.
The front-facing 1.3MP camera offers 720p at 30fps and was more than capable of handling video calls.
In day-to-day use the Xperia S handled itself well in terms of battery life. In general use involving messaging, e-mails, browsing, and maybe listening to some audio, it got through a day without a problem and still had enough juice left for day 2 (or at least most of it).
In our battery rundown test (where we loop some 720p video at ~65% brightness and leave WiFi on), the Xperia S soldiered on for between 6 and 7 hours.
The Xperia S comes with a skinned version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) along with a small bundle of pre-installed software. It is a shame that the Xperia S doesn’t come with Android 4.0, but there is supposed to be an update in the works.
We’ve already gone through most of the pre-installed apps with the Xperia arc S review (3D Albums, 3D Camera, Connected Devices, Music and Videos, NeoReader, OfficeSuite, PlayNow, Timescape and TrackID), but there are some new noteworthy appearances on the Xperia S.
First is “Music Unlimited”, which is really just a shortcut to a webpage explaining what the service is and giving a link to the app on the Play Store. Unfortunately, the app is not available in South Africa, so “Music Unlimited” is really just a waste of space.
Next is “Power Saver”, which allows you to tweak and toggle profiles that help you get the most out of your battery.
Finally, “Recommender” which requires a Facebook sign in and gives you recommendations from your Facebook friends.
Overall, the small truckload of pre-installed apps don’t add anything particularly useful or necessary to the standard Gingerbread install. In fact, having 3 pages of apps before you’ve even started installing anything can, I think, be deemed “overdoing it”, especially when some of those “apps” are really just shortcuts taking up space.
In the end, you’re left with a phone of decent design, though sporting a few questionable decisions. It boasts excellent internals and performance, a great screen and good battery life; but it has a lackluster camera and unimpressive and generally unnecessary software tweaks.
The only question left to answer is whether or not the Xperia S is the Android phone I will be recommending, and the simple answer is no.
The RRP of the Xperia S is R5,999, which is much better than the indicative RRP for the Xperia arc S (R6,799), especially considering the difference in hardware (both internal and external).
Currently, though, I still favour the Galaxy Nexus in almost every aspect (the camera being the one obvious exception), though the Xperia S does at least offer some decent competition for the middle ranks.